My post this week is a follow-up on last week’s suggestion to plan for failure (https://www.katherinefusco.com/the-mindful-academic-writer/this-semester-plan-to-fail ), in which I suggested the importance of being honest about when in the semester it’s unlikely you’ll get writing and research done.
If that’s a more macro look at the time of an academic life, what I’d like to say here is that being mindful about how we spend the minutes of our days can be a similarly important way to be gentle with ourselves, if we frame it right.
Time logging gets a bad wrap, and, at times, rightfully so. In my first book, I wrote about industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor who subjected workers to his infamous stop watch in order to develop “one best way,” a process of labor organization that privileged systems over individuals. Too, in American literature courses, I often teach the time logs of both Benjamin Franklin and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. My students and I often remark on the rigidity of such systems.
But I think part of the trick here is that while time logging often makes a bad master, it can be a good tool (and I suspect that Franklin, who has a pretty good sense of humor throughout his biography—often noting his failings—would likely agree).
If a time log isn’t being imposed upon one as a managerial tool, it can be a useful method to reflect on the way we spend our hours and minutes—which is to say, the way we spend the days of our lives. And though this may still feel a bit scary or bad (realizing, as a 2016 Nielsen survey suggests, that we spend upwards of five hours a day watching TV), I’d like to suggest that used well, time logging can be a way of freeing ourselves from guilt and mindfully setting more realistic expectations.
Here’s a little example—I like to write in the mornings. Historically, I have maintained a faithful 8-10am writing time, either tucked away in a corner of the cafeteria adjacent to my building or at the internet-free coffee shop near campus.
This year, I have had a repeated disappointment. Each morning, I’d crack open my laptop and see the little digital clock display reporting out an unavoidable truth: 8:25, 8:45, 8:50. Kind of disappointing.
But, logging my time, I came to a realization: the shift in my writing time was reflecting a change in a different area of my life. After several years, I have finally purchased a non-scary bicycle that I’m riding to work most days. This shift has health, economic, and environmental benefits. Also, and this is super-banal, it means I need to blow dry my hair in the mornings so I don’t have crazy helmet-hair. Between this nod to vanity and the extra time that biking takes, the truth revealed by the adjusted time log in my planner reveals that it’s now more reasonable to imagine that my writing time needs to shift to somewhere closer to 8:45 or 9:00.
This now means that rather than whipping myself over my failure to show up for my appointed writing time each morning, there are decisions to be made. Do I want to write until 11, rather than 10? That’s possible on days I don’t teach. Can I add an afternoon writing session or two? Yes, but I’ll need accountability. Whichever the case may be, an adjustment is in order, but not a bunch of guilt. Though this year, it’s biking that means the way I pass the hours of my days has changed, it could as easily be something else: a family issue, health concerns, a change in course schedule or departmental commitments.
If time tracking sounds interesting, I’d point you to Laura Vanderkam (http://lauravanderkam.com/). I’m especially fond of her book I Know How She Does It, which, in addition to showing the time logs of many successful professional women who have children, makes an argument for encouraging young women to enter the sort of high-powered professions perceived as incompatible with family life. Her tone is refreshingly matter of fact. As it turns out no one, really no one, is working 80 hours a week!
Used as a tool to impartially diagnose, tweak and readjust, time tracking can be a way to see if time spent matches priorities and also to get real in a way that may mean setting yourself up to succeed rather than inflicting upon yourself a daily Sisyphean task that guarantees guilty feelings. It needn’t mean doing things faster or more efficiently; instead, it might just mean becoming aware of how your time is being spent. After all, who has time for guilt? Have you been watching the new American Crime Story? There’s so much good TV to watch!
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